When Westerners think of Genghis Khan, we tend to focus on the whole raping-and-pillaging thing. But in the imagination of many Asians, the 13th-century Mongol warrior, who united the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and eventually ruled over one-fifth of the Earth's land mass, occupies a position not unlike that of Alexander the Great: an enigmatic figure, a merciless conqueror who was also beloved by his people as a just ruler. In short, Genghis Khan is the ideal subject for either an epic poem or a summer action franchise. Now he has both: The Secret History of the Mongols, an anonymous poem composed shortly after Khan's death in 1227, and Sergei Bodrov's Mongol (Picturehouse Films), a Russian-Kazakh co-production largely based on that poem and the first film in a projected trilogy on the life of the storied warrior.
The occasional CGI-enhanced battle scene notwithstanding, this is a historical epic like Mom—or David Lean—used to make. It's got transgenerational blood feuds, galloping steeds, lucky talismans carried for years by separated lovers, and steppes—lots and lots of steppes. The movie was shot on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China), and aside from the otherworldly beauty of the landscape itself (still one of the most isolated spots on Earth), there's something thrilling about how this drama unfolds on the very ground where Genghis Khan ruled.
Genghis Khan was not a proper name but a title ("universal ruler") that was eventually bestowed on the man born as Temudgin, the son of a tribal chieftain. As the movie begins, Temudgin's father (Ba Sen) is taking his 9-year-old son (Odnyam Odsuren) to choose his future bride from an enemy tribe. Instead, Temudgin himself chooses a 10-year-old girl named Borte (Bayartsetseg Erdenebat), who will eventually become the love of his life. On the way back from their betrothal, the father is poisoned by yet another rival tribe, whose leader vows to kill Temudgin when he grows up (the taboo on killing children, apparently, being one of the few ethical limits respected by medieval Mongols).
So, Temudgin embarks on a life marked by constant danger, shifting alliances, kidnappings and counter-kidnappings, and the occasional stint in shackles. These painful vicissitudes do a lot to account for why Temudgin might grow up to be played by Tadanobu Asano, a Japanese actor, model, singer, and hipster idol best known in the States for his role as a samurai in Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. As Genghis-Khan-to-be, Asano projects a preternatural self-possession, rarely raising his voice above a low mumble. But that very stillness makes him more formidable. Though Asano is a shade delicately built for a great warrior, he's more than convincing as a man with the resolve to conquer the world.
Asano owns the movie, but two other actors stand out: the Chinese Honglei Sun as Jamukha, Temudgin's blood brother and eventual sworn enemy; and the Mongolian Khulan Chuluun as his wife, Borte, whom Temudgin loves enough to break with the Mongol tradition of never waging war over a woman. The glimpses we get into such customs are fascinating, and I could have done with one less slo-mo battle sequence and a few more details about nomadic burial practices, but Mongol isn't a lesson in cultural anthropology— it's a conventional epic biopic with a handsome international cast and a high level of technical finish.
My only problem with Mongol is that—how often in life do you get to write this sentence?—Genghis Khan is a little too nice. As he's tenderly cradling his wife's pregnant belly (pregnant, possibly, with the child of her enemy captor), or reassuring his soldiers that, no really, they should divide the plunder amongst themselves, you've got to wonder: Don't you have to crush more people on your way up the ladder of world domination? Mongol ends abruptly in 1206, as Temudgin is named leader of all the Mongol tribes. Presumably, as his power expands in future movies, we'll come to see more of the dark side of the man who would be Khan.